My initial run at the Breck Epic 2016 was challenging. For the full six days I was maxed out, fully pinned to hold onto the lead my partner and I had over the other coed duo teams, being the weaker of a pair takes a bit to stomach. The rules are stay together, the challenge is to communicate. We certainly had our setbacks but to race in such an extreme setting of elevation, intensity, and duration make for as much if not more exhilaration than fatigue. We maintained our lead throughout and upon the conclusion of the week I felt like a different person. I had taken on challenges I hadn’t even thought to before and felt as though I was seeing the world with a fresh perspective filled with the confidence of what I could overcome.
I spend the majority of the year seeking and pursuing challenges almost exclusively as an individual. It is a second nature for me, perhaps born out of the excitement and fulfillment I get from being outside of my comfort zone, and the challenge of finding anyone with a matching enthusiasm. This challenge also seems to be more difficult to find with a growing breadth of experience and the passing of time. That rare opportunity to race as a team really drives home how incredibly rewarding it is to step outside of the usual pursuit of individualistic goals.
My ideal partner would be someone who shares my drive, determination, and compassion while also being similar in fitness and ability. I take pride in being able to mentor, motivate, and encourage but also want the comfort of knowing that when the tables are turned someone has my back as well and I’m not stuck bearing the full burden of responsibility. I race cross with Dani and our results are often comparable. She’s tough, goofy, fun to be around, and was stoked for the opportunity. She warmed me that her skills might not be up to par on the mountain bike but that she would make up for it by spontaneously bursting into song while we raced.
The excitement built as the race got closer, and having someone to share planning with only made it more so, with meals, clothes, and tools taking the most thought . We were sharing a condo right next to the venue with three other racers in the solo field, two guys and a girl, and the close proximity to the start lines meant minimized time spent doing anything other than preparation, eating, recovering, and cleaning bikes. Chances were good that if one of us in the house were completely bonked someone else wouldn’t be and we could look out for each other throughout the week.
More so even it was a wonderful experience to have others to share stories with at the end of the day. More time was spent laughing at ourselves than stressing over being fatigued. It did seem to be a little unfair how much fun Danni and I were having racing together as opposed to the rest of the crew out there chasing seconds on the clock each day but this was definitely why I choose to do a team.
The first day of the race is a big unknown. Joining the day zero racer meeting in a tent of over five hundred competitors and their support crews, every face can look intense and even intimidating. Much like any race the collective tension leading into the start line is just about thick enough to chew. With this race all competitors start in one mass wave and although the road is open and wide for the first 30 minutes or so to enable passing, much of the tension comes out in those first few miles with the scramble to find a clean wheel to ride in the single track.
The local police provide a neutral lead-out for a few of the stages and it is painfully comical the blistering pace they set straight from the start. This does string the field out a bit before the course narrows to singletrack but it also can also be a rude awakening in the cool temps first thing in the morning.
Our goals were to ride fast and clean, stay strong, be safe, and have fun. Danni had warned me that her mountain bike skills weren’t the best and that she tends to sing while racing. By day six I had spent much more time singing then she did but the skills curve was rapid and any waiting I had to do at the start of the week rapidly diminished.
Our vibe was light, we told each other to drink and eat and made games of it. We each had a day of bonking but minimal crashing and mechanicals. We made friends of the racers we often shared the trails with and made sure the other never got so focused the scenery was passed by without the appreciation it deserved. We found out we had opposite preferences for riding which played out perfectly as I would push her on the singletrack and she would push me on the open roads. We definitely shared a love for the faster days with more pedaling that alternated with the more scenic but slower days spent at higher altitudes with rougher trails and lots of walking. The weather stayed perfect the whole week and we maintained a consistently that kept us on the top of the podium throughout.
My knowledge of the courses from the previous year helped keep the motivation high although my belief that we were on the last climb every 30 minutes or so became an ongoing joke. In my mind each climb was the last of sorts, the tapped out and broken conversations in my head just don’t translate well while racing. Eating notoriously becomes a chore after a few days. I was fortunate to share this experience with the four other racers in the house as we collectively made the most of the topic “what food doesn’t sound disgusting right now.”
The experience was eye opening for me although in a way different from last year. Knowing what was coming made each day less stressful. Racing with someone with similar physiology made the output effort less about pushing limits. Consequently, later in the week I was riding faster and stronger than I thought was possible. I was still worked by the end of the six days but I was once again craving intensity and a chance to put myself to the test as an individual. I opted for one last day of racing; “stage seven” (if you will) by heading over to Winter Park for the final race of the season in their unrelated series.
I wasn’t undecided to take on one more day of racing but I also wasn’t ready to commit until the morning. I did go out with the crew that night but I didn’t have a desire to drink anything other than water. By morning I was downright excited to race and headed over the mountain after choking down one last mandatory breakfast. We lined up on the start, there were a fair number of women there with fresh legs but I took control and led out the road start for the first three miles.
When we settled into the first major climb I let another racer go, I just didn’t have the legs to hammer in any context. I had a funny confidence though, if I could get through Breck this wasn’t but a thing. As the course crested the top of the start climb I opened it up on the downhill and brought the other rider into sight. We stayed together for a while, me sitting on her wheel until the course opened back up again and she stood up to hammer away.
Again I let her go and again I was confident I could reel her back in. I had a few moments of “maybe it’s okay to get second” but I still wanted the top step. I stayed on the gas kept it positive and with under two miles to go she came back into sight. Adrenalin kicked in and I pushed up a hill harder than I knew I could that late in a race. I made the cut by 20 seconds at the end of the day but more importantly was the lessons learned about maintaining confidence and composure. The mind really sets it’s own limits and with the right technique you can choose to ignore. I was tired, I had no real concept of where the course went that day or what the terrain included but I focused instead on being strong where I could and staying efficient.
Overall it was the perfect way to sum up my mountain bike season. I definitely don’t hold the enthusiasm for racing cross country like I once did. I imagine finding how well cyclocross suits me just keeps me excited for fall all year long. Maintaining a positive internal dialog and not limiting myself based on perceptions is often my focus objective. To end the season with a healthy dose of positivity in regards to self-awareness while being able to work past the many limiting factors I came into this last race with, felt like a respectable way to wrap up and move on to cyclocross.